The Humans of the Wyss (HOW): ATT Edition series highlights members of the Wyss Advanced Technology Team (ATTs), showcasing their role, their work, the influences that shape their approach, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond. Reliant on strong technical expertise, diverse product development experience, and a focus on end-user needs, ATTs translate high-risk technologies into innovative solutions to advance society.
Fernanda (Nada) Langellotto describes herself as headstrong, curious, and optimistic. It’s these qualities that brought her from being a molecular biologist with a background in veterinary medicine in Italy through the cancer immunology industry to becoming a member of the Advanced Technology Team at the Wyss. Now, she’s leading studies for OMNIVAX, a vaccine platform created to combat infectious diseases for which there are currently no effective treatments. Learn more about Nada and her work in this month’s Humans of the Wyss: ATT Edition.
What project are you most involved with at the Wyss?
I am leading the in vivo and ex vivo studies for the infection vaccine Institute Project called OMNIVAX. OMNIVAX is an immuno-material-based vaccine platform designed to fight infectious pathogens, like viruses and bacteria, for which there are currently few or no effective treatments.
The injectable vaccine consists of four components: the antigen (toxin), the adjuvant (the substance that enhances the body’s immune response), the cell recruiting factor, and the biomaterial. These components work together to attract and activate the body’s dendritic cells, which in turn triggers an immune response against the target pathogen. The beauty of this technology is its highly modular manufacturing process; if you simply put in a different antigen, such as a urinary tract infection (UTI) or the flu, that antigen will activate the immune system accordingly. Because our infection vaccine is a biomaterial, you can use more of this component if you want it to stay in the body longer. This means it can protect against the target pathogen for years to come with only a single application, an advantage over other vaccines. The versatility of this technology means it can be utilized to address both bacterial and viral infections, either as a prophylactic or a therapy.
What real-world problem would OMNIVAX solve once it is translated?
The OMNIVAX infection vaccine platform can be used to address serious unmet medical needs in preventing infectious diseases by significantly amplifying the body’s immune response to specific antigens. For example, OMNIVAX could be used to create treatments against epidemics or other viral and bacterial pathogens that currently lack effective therapies, or vaccines for intractable animal diseases. The potential of this technology is extremely robust and is supported by data that highlights the applicability to various targets.
Initially, we are focusing on three main infectious disease areas where we could apply this technology: COVID-19 caused by SARS-CoV-2, viral influenza, and UTIs triggered by pathogenic E. coli strains. We also aim to make this vaccine affordable to maximize its impact.
Can you further explain OMNIVAX’s potential to be applied to COVID-19?
In March 2020, as the world dealt with the unforeseen challenges caused by COVID-19, the OMNIVAX team immediately put together a plan to respond to the pandemic with our technology. As soon as viral protein antigens specifically for COVID-19 became commercially available, we ordered them and immediately began working to formulate different vaccine combinations. Within a week, we had the vaccines ready to be tested in animals, and after a few weeks we got the first results.
The modularity and the ease of manufacturing of the OMNIVAX technology meant it was adaptable to new antigens and combinations of multiple antigens, so it could be used to enhance the immune response in a timely manner. It remains to be seen if it will be applied to COVID-19 in the near future, but these features enable the rapid development of vaccines, which gives OMNIVAX an advantage in our current crisis and in similar crises in the future.
What has been your role within the team?
My main role has been to design in vivo and ex vivo studies for OMNIVAX-derived therapies and prophylactics.
While I don’t physically make the infection vaccine, I work closely with the manufacturing and microfabrication teams, coordinating between different groups. This level of coordination is something I learned during my time in industry – you have to follow every step in the process, or you’ll never comprehend what you’re seeing in the lab. For example, if I tested the infection vaccine and it didn’t go through the syringe, I would need to understand why. Seeing the materials through the entire process, from suspension to the end of the study, would help me pinpoint where the problem is and prevent unnecessarily repeating something that’s not working. I keep a close eye on the details in order to be sure our team is as productive as possible.
As part of my job as a member of the Advanced Technology Team, I am sometimes called upon to help present our research in business development meetings. Because of my work in the lab, I know we have very strong data to move this project forward and it makes me more comfortable when I talk to investors. While I find this very interesting, science is still my priority. I love being in the lab. Overall, it’s exciting to be part of this multi-disciplinary team.
Going back in time, how did your path lead you to Massachusetts?
During my master’s in veterinary medicine in Italy, I had the opportunity to work in a research lab. This was my first approach to science, working on a project based on glial-derived neurotrophic factors. After getting my master’s degree, I worked for a short amount of time in a lab performing in vitro fertilization in horses. But, I knew it was not exactly the type of research I was interested in. During that time, I met someone who connected me with a research lab at the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn in Naples, a well-known research institute devoted to basic research in biology. Back then the only thing I really knew about molecular biology was the difference between DNA and RNA, but I was eager to learn and my PI, Dr. Paolo Sordino, gave me the opportunity to join his team and start this new journey. Initially, I worked for no money, just getting a foundation in the skills I needed.
After few months, Paolo encouraged me to apply for a Ph.D. program offered by the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine with my former mentors Professors Luciana Castaldo and Carla Lucini and I got to enter the program. During my third year, I was able to attend the biggest international meeting in the field I was working on in Madison, Wisconsin and I had the opportunity to meet pioneers in the field of kidney development, which was the topic of my Ph.D. project. One of them was Dr. Alan J. Davidson from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). He showed an interest in helping my research move forward and offered to have me join his lab as a visiting Ph.D. student, but I needed my own funding. So, I applied for a very competitive European fellowship (EMBO). Nobody believed I would get it, but I did! So, in 2009 I came to the United States to finish my Ph.D. research at MGH.
What made you shift your career from academia to industry?
After doing a postdoc in ophthalmology and gene therapy at UMass Medical School and holding a position as research fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital and Boston University, I decided to leave academia and switch to industry. First, I never had a strong interest in an academic career as a professor. More importantly, I wanted to make something happen for more than just a publication. I wanted to see the real-world impact of my work. Unfortunately, I lost a lot of people in my life because of cancer, so cancer immunotherapy became my area of interest. During my time in industry, I worked in different sized companies and had a variety of experiences. In small startups, I interacted very closely with scientists of every level, but also with investors. I learned the effects money could have on science and what it was like to face big disappointments. I also worked in companies where everybody was extremely committed to making the technology work, especially given the personal connection and got to see compounds approved by FDA and become commercially available.
That’s when I had the chance to come work at the Wyss. The reason I took this position was that it gave me a unique opportunity to apply what I’d learned in industry. I always think about the Wyss as a place where you get to take a technology from a publication and improve it, giving it the potential to cure people.
What is the biggest difference between working in industry and working in academia?
In industry, there is a bigger emphasis on teamwork. I find that industry is generally more collaborative than academia. Very often, in academia all the incentives are based on the perception of one’s individual intellectual contribution, such as authorship for journal publications. In industry, execution is rewarded. Whether it’s the co-founders or team members who work together to accomplish a goal, all of them will receive credit.
How does your industry experience inform the way you approach your work at the Wyss?
Though it seems that the research interests of academia and industry are often quite different, I truly believe there are opportunities to produce good academic research that can assist industry.
To that end, what I’m trying to build within the Immuno-materials platform is more focused, detail-oriented science with a real-world application. I came here to work on something that could be translated into a product that would benefit other people, going beyond just a publication. Being part of a team of people with industry experience, like the Advanced Technology Team, supports that approach. Of course, I still work on grants and manuscripts, but I don’t lose focus on the end goal. I want the newest generation of scientists at the Wyss to learn to pay attention to detail, to change plans based on priorities, to focus on what is fundamental to move forward quickly, and to cooperate within the team. I always say to them: if I win, you win. We are a team.
What inspired you to get into this field? What continues to motivate you?
I have always been very fascinated by science. There was a woman I admired since I was a teenager, Rita Levi Montalcini. She was an Italian Nobel laureate, honored for her work in neurobiology. I have read all of her books. When I was just a teenager, my parents would give me money to use to go out with my friends and I’d use it to donate to cancer research because I was so inspired by her.
I believe in what I do. I truly believe we have the possibility to change other people’s lives. As a scientist, understanding medical problems and finding a way to help people suffering from diseases is what keeps me motivated and enthusiastic about what I’d call a passion more than a job.
What excites you most about your work?
I believe that when you constantly ask questions, you are constantly learning, and I’m always doing just that. When I realize that I have discovered something new and it’s something that nobody else knows about in that moment, I get so excited. It makes me feel like what I’m doing is so worthwhile. I wish I could double the hours in a day to have more time to continue investigating and find more answers. It’s almost dangerous. When I think of the immune system and how it protects the human body, and I see that with our vaccine technology we are able to modulate and potentiate the immune response to very big global health problems, I feel so powerful.
What are some of the challenges that you faced, even before the COVID-19 pandemic?
One of the biggest challenges for me has been coming to terms with the role money plays in research. When I see things working and becoming real, but I know there are only a limited amount of resources, I feel frustrated.
When problems come up in the lab, that doesn’t bother me, because science without challenges is too easy. Frustration is common in this line of work, but if you’re committed and passionate, it won’t make you miserable. When you start to get irritated, it’s important to remember why you’re doing it, in my case to help others, and then it’s completely worth it.
When not at the Wyss, and not social distancing, how do you like to spend your time?
I’m a musician – I started playing the piano when I was four and a half. I got a degree so I could teach piano. But I’m not limited in my taste – I go from classical to heavy metal. I loved going to concerts. It’s the only activity that my husband Gianluca and I would do alone since our daughters were born.
I’m also a painter, and I paint with my daughters Matilda and Clarissa. I like to paint with my hands, rather than a paintbrush, and I like to see my feelings expressed on a canvas. I am glad that I transmitted this passion to my daughters. Also, I cook for my family and friends as a stress-relief activity. I can spend a day just making recipes from my home country to let my foreign friends try.
I love to learn about other cultures. Before the pandemic, we tried to travel as much as possible, but I also tried to do this here in Boston. Every time I would invite someone over, I took a polaroid of them. I have an album with all of the pictures and each one tells a story of someone with a unique culture, language, and identity. One day I dream to write a book about all of the people I’ve met during my time here.
Overall, my husband and daughters keep me very busy but I love life so I try to live as much as I can.
What has it been like to be working on research during the COVID-19 pandemic?
It has been a very intense and busy time. There has been a lot to learn quickly. There have also been a lot of changes to my “normal” life. I’ve dealt with the fear of family members being sick, and the anxiety and emotions of two young children asking many questions. I’m adjusting to working from home and working in the lab while being a full-time mom and teacher. But, knowing that all of this work I’ve been doing could give hope to people, to my family, and to my kids that soon we will get back to our lives, makes me feel so tireless and adds more motivation to continue working harder and harder.
What does it feel like to be working towards translating cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society?
When I got the opportunity to join the Wyss as a member of the Advanced Technology Team, I was excited to work somewhere that would give me the freedom to focus on technologies that will be changing other people’s lives. I told myself I had to take the chance in order to make a difference for myself and for others. I spend every day, working hours and hours, hoping that what I do will be something that will be of some benefit to someone in this world and so far I envision the OMNIVAX technology as a successful endeavor that I am lucky to be part of.